Urgent need for foster homes in the Adirondacks

There is an urgent need for foster homes throughout the Adirondack region, particularly in Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties, as a crisis of heroin and other opioid drugs has added to the growing number of children who require foster placements.

The number of children in need currently exceeds the capacity of the local foster system, with Essex County currently serving 37 foster children and Franklin County serving 144.

“I think there’s always been a need,” said Jeremiah Pond, grade A supervisor for children’s services for Franklin County. “I think it’s gotten worse over the last three to four years, primarily because of substance abuse issues just getting so much worse. I know that in times when the economy is tough, there tends to be a lot of strain on families, and I think that might explain part of it, but I think the real primary driving force is substance abuse, especially of drugs like opiates, heroin and cocaine.”

In 2013, Pond said, the county had 64 children in care, which increased to 97 in 2014, when the heroin epidemic in the Northeast began to pick up speed. In 2015, the number increased to 103 kids, followed by 129 in 2016.

“So since 2013, we more than doubled the number of children in care in a pretty short amount of time,” Pond said. “That doesn’t mean we have double the staff, double the foster homes or double the resources to handle these issues, so we’re really struggling to keep up here.”

Essex County senior caseworker Cindy Allwell said the system has been very affected by the opioid crisis and a change in attorneys, which has resulted in an increase of cases in court and has brought in a dramatic increase of kids coming into care. The county contracted with Berkshire Farms, a nonprofit group with programs assisting in finding foster homes.

“We’ve had an increase, and we brought Berkshire on board about a year ago because we needed more homes,” Allwell said. “Even though I was a home finder and I had developed more foster homes than had been here, I had increased the amount of homes, but it wasn’t enough.”

The number of foster homes in the counties is also increasing slightly, although it’s not enough to keep pace with the growing number of kids in need of homes.

Through the counties’ staff and United Way, which helps to provide outreach and awareness of the needs, plus Essex County’s partnership with Berkshire, both counties have been able to recruit foster parents.

“Foster homes have been slightly increasing,” United Way of the Adirondacks Executive Director John Bernardi said. “Our efforts and the efforts of social services have helped, and my understanding is that there has been some improvement, but the need is not met. There is still a need.”

Franklin County has increased its foster homes to 83 from 55 in 2015, although 49 are relative foster homes or people with significant connections to the children, Pond said.

Currently, Essex County has 18 foster homes and six which are kinship homes, Berkshire Farm Program Coordinator Lori Beer said.

While every child who comes through the foster care system is placed in a home, not every child is placed in his or her own community, which is another reason homes are desperately needed in the counties.

“When children are entering foster care, even if we’re doing the absolute best job possible and we’re matching them with somebody who they know in the ideal circumstances, it’s still a tremendous trauma to these children,” Pond said. “Something bad, something really bad had to happen to them to even come into foster care in the first place. We don’t remove children because of minor issues. It has to be a serious matter, so right away the kid already has that going against them.

“They’re being taken out of their home environment, so no matter how unsafe, neglectful or abusive it may be, that’s all they know,” he said. “So they’re going through the trauma of dislocation, being taken out of that home and being placed elsewhere. Even if the home they’re being placed into is wonderful and amazing, they’re still going through a change that is difficult to manage. On top of that, if we have to take them out of their school district, away from their friends and extended family, the community they know and have grown up in, it’s just compounding that trauma. So we’re really as much as possible trying to avoid doing that.”

Allwell agreed it’s certainly not ideal to take children away from their home communities but said sometimes it’s necessary.

“We try to keep youngsters as close to their hometown as possible, preferably in the same school district,” she said. “That’s often times not able to be done, however. We just don’t have homes in the towns where the youngsters are being removed from, and if you do have homes, sometimes there aren’t vacancies in them.”

To become a foster parent in Franklin County, reach out to home finder Candy Gadway at 518-481-1812, Pond said. She will assist in the process and provide paperwork.

In Essex County, contact Berkshire at 1-844-4BRKSHR or www.berkshirefarm.org, where one can answer questions and submit a form to become a foster parent. A home finder will then set up an appointment.

Both counties require potential foster parents to go through a 10-week training program to prepare for issues they might encounter with foster children, to teach about the court system and caseworkers, and to acclimate them through the process.

The only official qualifications for becoming a foster parent are being 21 years of age, having a stable living arrangement, providing a bed for a child and being cleared through the state child abuse registry.

“Just commit to opening your home and your heart to these children,” Pond said. “Anybody is welcome to be a foster parent, provided that you’re there to do your best to help take care of these children. We definitely have need for you and we’ll work with you around anything we need to.”

Pond said Franklin County’s process of matching kids with foster parents is tailored to provide the most comfortable experience to both the children and the parents.

“First of all, when you’re becoming a foster parent, you can kind of tell us, ‘Listen, this is what I feel comfortable with,'” Pond said. “You maybe want younger kids, or you maybe feel more comfortable with older kids, teenagers. Maybe boys or girls, or maybe there is a particular special need that you have experienced with someone in your family, and you feel comfortable caring for somebody with that special need. You can say, ‘That’s something I’m willing to be matched with.'”

He said the county will call foster parents with information about the children who need homes, and they can make the decision that is best for them.

“You can say, ‘I think I can do that,’ or ‘No at this time, I don’t think I can take that placement,'” he said. “And it’s not like you get taken off the list if you say no to a particular placement. We’ll call you for the next one.”

In Essex County, the process of matching children with foster parents comes through the home finder getting to know the parents through the certification process.

“We have a pretty good sense about what their capabilities are, what their schedule is like and how much they have support outside their own home that would be available to assist them,” Beer said. “We don’t want to put a foster parent in a situation where they’re in over their heads, we want to make sure that this experience is going to be successful for them as much as the child.”

County officials said ongoing support is provided to parents whenever they need it, through the county or through Berkshire.

“Sometimes kids will not immediately be cuddly, warm and grateful,” Pond said. “They might be sad, they might be withdrawn, they might act out a little bit, and that’s because they just don’t know that they’re safe and they haven’t figured that stuff out yet.

“Once you break through that, it can turn into a very rewarding and meaningful relationship with a child who desperately needs it.”

He added that the department also provides ongoing financial support for costs such as day care, school uniforms and other needs.

Pond said it’s important the kids find safe homes for both their success and the success of the community.

“They are children who haven’t done anything wrong. They are children who deserve the same love, support, respect and safety that any of our children deserve,” Pond said. “And what’s best for all of us as a community is to take care of these children and help them become productive citizens. They’re going to become future employees and taxpayers, and they’re going to be future leaders in our community. They’re going to be the people who help us to progress and grow and to make this an even greater place to live than it is right now. But that’s not going to happen if we don’t take care of them now, and I think it’s really a responsibility of all of us to do that together. It’s not just the foster care system, it’s the community at large.”